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Twelve Top Style Influencers of the 20th Century We're Still Listening to Today

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Are you an Audrey, Edie, or a Jean? When I see a woman skip across an icy winter parking lot wearing thin suede ballet flats on her feet, or a gamine girl in giant bug-eye sunglasses, or when I see a story splashed across the tabloids about a Hollywood celebrette who stepped out of her limo without her panties on, I can’t help but wonder if these women know who they are paying style homage to.

So here it is, my list of twelve top style influencers of the last century. Women the world over are still trying to emulate these fashion leaders today. Who among them influences your personal style?

Audrey Hepburn

Thanks to waif-like Audrey, millions of women around the world brave the cold and the rain in thin ballet flats with no arch support. But that’s okay, because she also gave us the little black dress, and was one of the top three contenders for big sunglasses.

All that is of course aside from being a champion of children’s and animal rights and a devoted mother. Count me among the legions of style-ettes who play for Team Audrey.

Jean Seberg

She had a fling with Jean Paul Belmondo and hawked the New York Herald Tribune for Jean Luc Goddard. And she looked swell doing it in striped french sailor shirts and a choppy blonde boy’s haircut. Chanel may have championed the sailor shirt in the 1920s, but for my euro, it is Jean Seberg we are all imitating today.

Louise Brooks

She opened Pandora’s Box and later told all in Lulu In Hollywood, but she lives on for most women in the form of that sassy-chic chin-level hair bob that so many of us succumb to at least once in our lives. I’ll admit to having gone full bob two or three times, but I never once pulled it off as stylishly or smartly as Brooksie did.

Marlene Dietrich

She was a quintuple threat: she could sing, dance, act, think for herself, and she was a one-woman anti-fascism campaign — and she did it all looking sexy in tailored menswear. She was one of the first women in our popular consciousness who popped on a top hat, trousers and tails, and still looked like a lady doing it. Where would Diane Keaton, Meg Ryan, and Madonna be without her?

Edie Sedgwick

There’s menswear and then there’s girls-wear. Edie was a socialite-turned-celeb and a favorite among Warhol’s cast of characters. Fashion lore holds that, when Edie was a young waif on the hipster scene, she was too poor to afford new couture, so she would wear girl’s school uniform skirts from the second hand store. These skirts, when applied to her long-legged frame, became mini skirts. When those stopped working for her, she would gad about in nothing but a long shirt and ballet tights — marking the tunic-and-tights fad of the 1960s that has carried forward to make yoga leggings an acceptable choice for so many of us today.

Jean Harlow

Underneath it all is, well, underwear. When a starlet gets caught flashing the paparazzi while stepping out of a brand-new Porsche, I wonder if she knows who she is emulating. Hollywood’s notorious Hays Code of onscreen decency was practically invented for Harlow, who would wear lingerie as daywear with nothing on underneath — on camera and off. In fact whenever she stepped out of her dressing room, the crew would be on pins and needles wondering which body parts they would have to find a way to camouflage with lighting and strategically-placed shrubbery. For underwear as outerwear, we credit Jean Harlow.

Eartha Kitt

Every year at Halloween, thousands of women pay homage to a sultry feline of the small screen who embodied feminine allure at its most cat-like. You may argue that Julie Newmar invented the role of Cat Woman, Michelle Pfeiffer took it to the next level, and Halle Berry knocked it out of the park, but for my money, Eartha was the alpha and omega of dangerous beauty.

Jackie O

Carrying on the tradition of Audrey’s Big Sunglasses, Jackie brought her own preppy chic to the table with her Lilly Pullitzer Palm Beach Shift Dresses, Capri Pants (in a stye-icon tie with Mary Tyler Moore), Big Hair, Pearls, Chanel Suits, bookishness and mad mom skills. The Late Mrs. Kennedy will always be American Royalty in our hearts.

If you feel that this list has been frustratingly light on women of color or a global perspective, I quite agree. The global influence of Hollywood over the past century has ensured that images of Caucasian women have been disproportionately influential in world culture. So allow me to pay homage to some iconic 20th century ladies who have inspired across cultural lines:

Angela Davis

She wasn’t Hollywood or high society, but Angela Davis has always inspired with brainy determination, courage and that astonishing natural beauty.

Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno is a personal icon of mine for being openly Latina (and sometimes Siamese) in Hollywood at a time when most Hollywood stars were forced to change their names and dye their locks in order to make it big.

Michelle Yeoh

She holds her own paired onscreen with the likes of Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and James Bond, all while doing her her own stunts in her movies.

Gayatri Devi, Maharani of Jaipur:

You may not know her name, but hundreds of millions of women do. She was India’s answer to Dietrich and Jackie all rolled into one -- wearing hair uncovered in short haircuts, sporting menswear trousers when it was unheard of in India. She was also known for appearing in couture silk chiffon saris. Style-wise, the Maharani more than held her own against Jackie Kennedy, but it was for her other accomplishments that we admire her most: marrying for love in 1940s India and running for parliament in the early 1960s (and winning by a landslide).

In truth, there have been too many iconic 20th century women to list them all here with any fairness, so I will quit while I am ahead. Who will be the icons of the 21st century? Only time (and our great-granddaughters) will tell.

What style icons have influenced you the most? Let us know in the comments section below.